Denver of the late 19th century wasn’t a city, but more a cluster of communities separated by economics and ethnicity. The dwellings west of the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek were the homes for some of the wealthy who wanted to escape the plumes of black smoke billowing out of the downtown area, and also a popular locale for newly-arrived Irish and Italian immigrants.
The new residents brought their faith and customs to the Mile High City and while Irish immigrants established St. Patrick’s church at 33rd and Pecos in the mid-1880s as a place of worship, Italians yearned for a sanctuary of their own.
Assistance would come in 1893, when Father Felice Mariano Lepore arrived from New York City to serve God and his Italian brethren. He was described as a champion for the poor Italian immigrants and became the face of the Mount Carmel Society, a group dedicated to bringing a Parish to the Italian neighborhood.
But his tenure in Denver came with plenty of controversy.
The effort to establish Mount Carmel Church wasn’t popular with everyone in the neighborhood. A rival Italian group, the St. Rocco Society, wanted to establish a parish as well. The conflict came to a head when a fire destroyed the first Mt. Carmel church in August 1898, some of whom believed to be an act of arson. In spite of the fire, the Church was going to be rebuilt and as Father Lepore helped lay the cornerstone for the new Mt. Carmel in 1899, he would not see its formal dedication in five years..
On a gray evening in November 1903, Father Lepore and an acquaintance, Joseph Sorice, were playing cards in the priest’s study. Lepore’s nephew, Frank, stepped in to the office to warm up from the cold and made his way to his room on the second floor of the church.
Lepore’s cook was also in the church and later told the Denver Republican newspaper that he hadn’t heard any signs of conflict until he heard gunshots ring out at about before 10 p.m.
Frank ran downstairs, half-dressed, and saw his uncle and the stranger struggling in the kitchen. Father Lepore was able to struggle the gun from Sorice and another shot rang out. Father Lepore broke away from the assailant and ran into the church’s sanctuary section, while the other man ran down into the basement.
Both the cook and Frank said they had no clue why the two went from peacefully playing cards to a mortal struggle.
When the police arrived, they found Father Lepore at the altar, in front of the life-sized statue of Christ. His head was laying on a prayer cushion and his blood stained the carpet of the altar steps.
Both men were carried to an ambulance and transported to St. Joseph Hospital.
At the hospital, doctors determined that Lepore’s wound above his intestines was mortal. The bullet entered the left side side above the hip, passed through the abdomen and came out below the navel.The second bullet struck the right elbow and passed through the forearm. The third bullet struck him at the angle of the jaw and came out at the point of the chin. The one shot fired at Sorice struck him in the front of the abdomen and passed through his body.
There was enough time for Lepore to offer a deathbed statement, that was radically different from what the two witnesses reported. He said that he wasn’t playing cards but writing at his desk when Sorice came in very drunk and had some words for the priest. Lepore didn’t say what those words were, but Sorice shot him without warning or provocation.
“My name is Felice Lepore. I am 46 years old. I was shot by Joseph Sorice at about 9 o’clock tonight. I was sitting in my office working and he walked into the office. He said nothing to me. I saw him coming into the office and asked him to sit down. He said nothing to me, but pulled out a revolver and began to shoot. We had no trouble before and I did not expect him to shoot me. He came from Pittsburg about a month ago. I had no trouble with any of his relatives or friends, so far as I know. He had no relatives here that I know of.”
Lepore also said that he was afraid that Sorice was sent out from the East, presumably from New York, to kill him. He first met Sorice a month prior to the shooting. Lepore stated that there were no warnings from back East but felt that he was going to kill him from the first moment he met the man.
“He shot me three times and then started to run away out of the back door. I ran after him to the back door and I caught him and said: ‘You have shot me.’ Then, I grabbed the revolver which he had in his hand and turned it towards his breast and shot him. He held the revolver in his hand when I shot him. I could not pull it away from him. He had no friends here.”
The doctors who worked on Lepore had little hope for the wounded priest. His brother, Felice, and nephew were at Lepore’s bedside. The priest embraced and kissed his relatives and said to his brother. “Take charge of everything, my brother; I have only two or three hours to live.” He succumbed to his wounds early next morning.
In a nearby room, Sorice never said a word, but simply groaned all the time until he succumbed to his wound.
Father Lepore was interred at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. His funeral was described as one of the largest attended in the city’s history. Mt. Carmel was filled to capacity, while a large crowd of mourners remained outside.
The casket rested in front of the altar and candles burned above the lifeless figure. Following the funeral services within the church, the casket was placed in a hearse and the procession moved slowly, led by a large brass band to Union Station, where a special funeral train took the mourners to Mt. Olivet where Father Lepore was laid to rest.
Most would think that this is the end of the story, but following the funeral, conspiracy theories flourished concerning Lepore’s death.
The bad blood Lepore created didn’t end as he lay dying in a hospital.
“This shooting had to be just from the nature of the man,” said prominent community member Frank Damasclo the morning of Lepore’s death. “I did not know of course, who would do it, nor the reason for it would be done, but a man who lives as he has done is sure to be shot down sooner or later.”
The Denver Republican postulated that Lepore was shot from a previous feud between the two men dating back to the priest’s days in New York City and possibly as far back as the old country, since both came from the same province of Avellino, Italy.
Several weeks after the murder, Sorice’s companion, Pasquale Cortuso, was arrested by the police. He was found drunk, brandishing a stiletto and threatened anyone who would approach him. The police seized and took him into custody before any retribution could be taken out on him by Lepore’s supporters.
According to Pasquale’s interrogation, the pair did not have any ill will towards Lepore. In fact, Sorice was supposedly Lepore’s godfather. He did acknowledge that Sorice was a professional gambler who regularly cheated at cards. Perhaps this is one reason why an altercation took place between Father Lepore and Sorice.
Sorice and an acquaintance were rumored to have approached Lepore for $240 when they arrived in Denver just weeks before the shoo
ting. Lepore refused to pay the money, but got them a house to live in and work around town.
The Republican also reported that Sorice and Pasquale both came for Denver from Pittsburgh to get money from Lepore that they had lost from a banking business the priest was involved in.
Sorice quickly gained a reputation around the neighborhood as a shrewd gambler, a trait that both shared. Two weeks after their arrival, Father Lepore told the police that Sorice visited the priest with a revolver and demanded the money owed.
On the day of the murder, Sorice was seen at a card game in the back room of a neighborhood grocery store. He drank a quart of claret until the game was broken up around 6 p.m. At 7:30 Sorice walked into the home of Rena LaBatt, where he spoke to Frank about general topics with no indication of his future deed. He left the house at 9 p.m. where, shortly after, shots rang out less than a half hour later.
Another unusual incident came to light when prior to the shooting Eveyln Benns, a former employee of Lepore called a police captain and said he was the victim of a plot of his enemies. She gave no clue to who was behind the plot but, back in August, she had reported that she was attacked after leaving Mt. Carmel one evening.
Another part of the mystery was that the doctor who worked on both men determined Lepore wasn’t able to shoot Sorice in the way it was described by the two witnesses. Sorice told the doctor that Lepore didn’t fire the gun at him in close range and the shots inflicted would’ve made it unlikely that he could do that.
This brings up the question as to who shot Sorice? The only two men reported in the room were Lepore’s nephew and the cook. Was Father Lepore hiding the person that shot his assailant? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, since in his deathbed statement he said he was working in his study, but even his nephew stated that he was playing cards with Sorice. Is this the bigger conspiracy his former secretary was talking about?
Speaking of his former secretary, another secret made its way to the light. There was a fight for Lepore’s estate, which included several patents he had for fire escapes between his brother and alleged wife Evelyn Benns, who also claimed that the priest had a son.
Evelyn said that prior to Lepore dying at St. Joseph hospital, he told his secret wife, to get the papers to secure his estate. But following his death, Lepore’s brother produced a will created 12 years ago to show that he and his sisters were the rightful heirs.
After several years of litigation, a civil court judge declared Evelyn the legal widow of Father Lepore and Victor Mariano Lepore, born Sept. 15, 1898, the legitimate offspring of the union. The judge ruled that they had a common law marriage dating back to July 1, 1896.
Following the decision, the Catholic church told the Denver Republican newspaper that Lepore was never an ordained minister since he came from a discredited seminary school in Southern Italy. Since he was not elevated to the priesthood, the Church also stated that they recognized the marriage as legitimate.
While the estate wasn’t worth much, she felt vindicated that her son had a legitimate father.
The mystery of Father Lepore’s life and death brings remains unsolved to this day, but his efforts to help build Mt. Carmel church is a testament to his contribution to Denver’s fledgling Italian immigrant community.